What is a Thesis?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify effective thesis statements

The thesis statement pulls together the entire essay.

An open notebook with the words "my plan" written at the top of the page.

Figure 1. Your plan for organizing and constructing your paper will be dependent on your thesis. The thesis should guide and connect all the different parts of your argument.

In a nutshell, a thesis is a statement that expresses the author’s position on a subject. But it does more than that. A thesis statement pulls together the whole essay. What do we mean by that?

Think of it this way: in a conversation, we sometimes say “All I’m saying is…” The “thesis statement” would be whatever follows “All I’m saying is…”

  • “All I’m saying is: Brokeback Mountain was a better movie than Crash, and should have won the Oscar.”
  • “All I’m saying is: I think my cat is plotting to take over the world.”
  • “All I’m saying is: Ines is a very nice person, but she’s a terrible manager.”

Notice how “All I’m saying” works: It pulls together a set of statements about something. When the speaker says “All I’m saying is: Ines is a very nice person, but she’s a terrible manager,” she has probably already talked about the ways Ines is a nice person, but she has probably also shown that Ines is a bad manager. “Ines is so thoughtful and caring. She never forgets anyone’s birthday. But somehow she forgets to schedule our performance reviews! All I’m saying is: Ines is a very nice person, but she’s a terrible manager.” There are other statements that do this as well: “The bottom line is…”, “At the end of the day…”, “All in all…”

Practice: Pulling together a story

Choose one of the prompts below and, in 4-5 sentences, describe the events you think would lead up to it. What is the story that the prompt is pulling together? Remember, this is informal writing—thinking by way of writing—so don’t worry about whether your wording is perfect. Try to focus on the way the events in the story lead up to this concluding line.

  • “All I’m saying is: college is hard enough without this other stuff getting in the way!”
  • “The bottom line is: when you’re going in for a job interview, you have to pay attention to the details.”
  • “All I’m saying is: ‘bring your cats to work day’ turned out to be a terrible idea.”
  • “All in all, aside from the flooding and the cake disaster, it was a pretty good wedding.”

How does this help us become better readers and writers?

The thesis can be a pretty intimidating idea, especially when we’re already working with difficult academic concepts. It can be helpful to remember that we use statements to sum up our position on a subject all the time.

Note: The thesis often comes early in the essay to provide guidance to the reader

In contrast to the “All I’m saying is…” formulation, the thesis statement usually comes before the elements that support it. Some people refer to this structure as BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. When the thesis comes early in the essay, the reader can interpret the pieces of the essay in light of the thesis. Imagine that a friend is going to tell you a story about something that happened to them that day. How would you listen to the parts of the story if your friend starts with “Something really funny happened to me…”? What about if they say “I’m really upset because of something that happened today…”? Or “I really need your advice. Here’s what happened…”? With each of these different beginnings, we listen in a different way. In the first case, we’re primed to laugh; in the second, we get ready to offer comfort and sympathy; in the third, we’re prepared to problem-solve. Likewise, if it comes near the beginning of an essay, thesis statements can tell us something about how we should interpret each of the supporting elements in the essay.

On the next page, we’ll look at what the thesis is pulling together: the argument of an essay.

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